Unfinished Business: Protecting Children in Adult Jails and Prisons

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

A decade ago this July, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a bill designed to end sexual violence behind bars. It's now time to ensure that all states are in compliance.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the nation’s governors need to devote their attention to enforcing this law.

There is a lot at stake if PREA is not enforced.

For starters: the safety and well-being of the approximate 100,000 children placed in adult jails and prisons every year.

For example, Ameen, incarcerated in adult prison as a teen, who wrote us a letter stating that he witnessed a 14 year old being sexually assaulted by three other inmates. Another example: Antonio, sent to adult prison at age 17, who wrote to us “I came to prison so young; sexual advances were made toward me. I had to defend myself the best way I knew how, which was to fight.”

And these children include Rodney Hulin, sent to adult prison at 16, repeatedly raped. He committed suicide. Unfortunately these stories are more common than we recognize. Youth are 36 more times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile detention facility. To protect children, the PREA regulations include the Youthful Inmate Standard that bans the housing of youth with adults, prohibits contact between youth and adults in common areas, and ensures youth are constantly supervised by staff.

At the same time, the regulations limit the use of solitary confinement in complying with this standard.

Enforcement of the Youthful Inmate Standard is just the baseline for safety. We need to encourage our jurisdictions to go further to ensure that no child is victimized in a detention facility.

Governors and local officials should implement best practices now widely recognized in order to fully protect youth in the justice system. Those best practices include removing youth from adult jails and prisons, and placing them instead in juvenile detention and correctional facilities where they are more likely to receive developmentally appropriate services, educational programming and support by trained staff.

States that need assistance should consult other states that have already adopted policies to keep children out of adult jails or prisons, such as Colorado, Indiana, and Virginia. States can also seek federal technical assistance through Department of Justice-sponsored centers such as the National PREA Resource Center and the National Center for Youth in Custody, and they can apply for federal grants from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).

Thousands of individuals and organizations in nearly every state have called on the U.S. Attorney General and the nation’s governors over the past several months to ensure that children are protected from the dangers of adult jails and prisons through the PREA.

In the ten years since PREA was passed, an estimated one million children have cycled through adult jails and prisons.

Unfortunately, the PREA came too late to impact their safety and well-being.

We should make sure others who come after them have the kind of protection they so badly need.

Liz Ryan is the president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youths under 18 in the adult criminal justice system. She welcomes readers' comments.

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